Monthly Archives: November 2016

XL Popcorn – The Big Parade

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 576/1007
Title: The Big Parade
Director: King Vidor
Year: 1925
Country: USA

Before I get into this film I just want to meditate on the fact that someone decided to name their child “King”. I had always assumed that King Vidor (like director Charles Vidor) was Hungarian and so his name will have meant something different. No, he’s an American man whose parents gave him a regal forename. As a former teacher I have seen a number of kids walking around with acts of child abuse for a first name… but somehow “King” feels like a league of its own.

Anyway, to the film!

The Big Parade is one of the most financially successful movies of the silent era (I believe the title of most successful belongs to Birth of a Nation make of that what you will). It stands as a landmark in war movies since, despite being released 7 years after the conclusion of World War One, it is decidedly not gung-ho about things. Instead there is an almost optimistic honesty about the whole proceedings whilst also having the main characters go through some of the horrors of war (probably the most famous being a leg amputation).

Having seen this film after Academy Award winners Wings and All Quiet On The Western Front it is clear to trace the line of influence back to The Big Parade. Wings still beats The Big Parade when it comes to a singular tragedy though (that final goodbye scene is still burned into my brain). Then again this really isn’t a competition to see who can be the most tragic…

One thing that’s really interesting, for me, was how this film depicted the warfare. It’s actually a very long time before we see any actual war in this war film. There is the majority of the romance sub-plot before any shots are really fired. The romance between the lead and the French girl Melisandre (who is sadly not a priestess worshipping the Lord of Light) is actually quite sweet and the way that the language barrier between them is told using the intertitles was spot on.

The war itself, whilst not as bitter and hellish as in All Quiet On The Western Front, does still get across the barbarity of trench warfare. It is just that, as I meantioned earlier, optimistic streak permeating through. Even when they have to have a spitting contest for the sake of survival you still have that first hour in your head.

The Big Parade is one of those movies that modern war films could learn a lot from. I get that, as a society, there is this need for some war films that either glorify it or are overly gung-ho. It helps us deal with the atrocity in a way that can be stomached. However, it’s films along the lines of The Big Parade that stick in the annals of film history.


XL Popcorn – A Brighter Summer Day

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 575/1007
Title: A Brighter Summer Day (Gu ling jie shao nian sha ren shi jian)
Director: Edward Yang
Year: 1991
Country: Taiwan

For a film with a runtime of around 4 hours A Brighter Summer Day is a surprisingly understated affair most of the time. If you have ever seen Yang’s equally acclaimed 2001 film Yi Yi you will know how adept he is at the slow burn with sudden accent bursts of emotion.

Off the bat I am going to say that of these two films I preferred Yi Yi because of his sole focus on a family in modern day Taiwan. You could almost claim that A Brighter Summer Day and Yi Yi are great companion pieces and are a great window into Taiwan’s social history.

When watching this film it is very important to remember the historical context at the beginning:

“Millions of Mainland Chinese fled to Taiwan with the National Government after its civil war defeat by the Chinese Communists in 1949. Their children were brought up in an uneasy atmosphere created by the parents’ own uncertainty about the future. Many formed street gangs to search for identity and to strengthen their sense of security.”

This section of text at the beginning goes a long way to explain the 4 hours you are going to watch. The central focus is Xiao S’ir, a teenage boy being brought up in the uneasy world as stated in the intertitles. After flunking his school entry exams he has to attend night school with the members of two rival gangs: the Little Park Boys and the 217s. He has no allegiance to either gang and yet finds himself getting mixed up in their war which escalates to the point of a massacre around the films halfway point.

He is a good kid with a decent enough brain (we know this as he seems to want to find someone to talk to after reading War and Peace). The problem he has is that there is no one there to guide or help him. Since the school assumes he is a delinquent (due to his enrolment in night school rather than the day school) and his parents are so busy with their own problems in adjusting to their new life off of the mainland… well what hope did he really have?

It’s hard enough being a teenager dealing with their first love with a good support network – take that away and… well I am not saying everyone would end up where he does, but it’s all very possible. Just a downward spiral of emotions, social upheaval, hormones and no one ever truly believing in you. This whole film is just… tragic. The final intertitle five minutes before the end offers some relief, but not much.

Aside from the general upheaval (both geographic and political) that we witness in this film there is the cultural upheaval. At the time Mainland China was only a few years away from the Cultural Revolution, but in Taiwan the West is making its mark. The English title of the film comes from a line in Elvis’s song ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’, the line itself being a topic of discussion as to whether it’s grammatically correct. To be living in Taiwan in this time period must have been disorienting, much like how East Berliners must have felt once the wall fell.

As I said before A Brighter Summer Day is a slow burn with heightened emotional accents (I realise I am comparing this film to a house whose interior is entirely magnolia save for two red walls… I just can’t think of a better way to describe this).

Graphic Content – Ghost World

List Item:  Read half of the 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die
22/501Title: Ghost World
Creator: Daniel Clowes
Year: 1993-1997
Country: USA

Teenage angst is one of those topics that comes up a lot in films and comic books; usually to mixed or negative success. It feels rather quaint nowadays to acquaint angst with just teenage years when there is now so much more attention on so-called ‘quarter life crises’ (not that it’s a new concept or anything, just more widespread).

Still, this is where we were in the early 1990s and it is because of this clever and thoughtful depiction of angst that Ghost World found itself on the the 1001 Comics lists. That is of course underselling it, but having had to sit through the angst-fest of Fast Times At Ridgemont High  (that was meant to be a comedy, right?) I know I enjoyed Ghost World in both film and graphic forms a whole lot more.

This 88 page collection charts a few months after two misfit best friends graduate high school. I hate using the word misfit here, but with their distaste of the mainstream, incredibly cynical take on the world and their difficulty with connecting with anyone other than each other – well I am not sure of the word.

Now this makes Ghost World sound incredible nihilistic, but there is a fantastic streak of black and absurdist comedy that runs through it. This is a world where they somehow make a successful jokes about the popular girl at school getting a facial tumour, amateur satanists and media whores that defend child molesting priests.

Okay, so maybe I have gone off topic here. The big draw of Ghost World is the relationship between Enid and Becky (with the good hair?). Their ups, downs and fights just feel so realistic; even when the topic of their flight feels slightly out of the ordinary.

Artwise I found it interesting that all the pages were tinted blue, making this a black, white & blue comic. It’s something I did not notice on the first read, but when I went back to have a quick flick through before writing this up it suddenly hit me. It’s almost like viewing the story through an iceberg or with melancholic coloured glasses. It makes me wonder if this had an effect on my reading of the comic on a subconscious level.

With its brutally honest take on life as a teenager and the associated angst this is one of those graphic novels that should really be recommended to anyone going through this stuff. Good to know you’re not alone, you know?

XL Popcorn – Make Way For Tomorrow

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 574/1007
Title: Make Way For Tomorrow
Director: Leo McCarey
Year: 1937
Country: USA

Back when I watched Jeanne Dielman I had the need to hug my mum and tell her how much I appreciated everything she did. Now that I have seen Make Way For Tomorrow… well I was emotionally winded for a while afterwards. Not even the bright colours and happy music of Super Mario Galaxy 2 was able to chase it away.

Make Way For Tomorrow is an interesting film to look back upon some 80 years since its release. Here we have an older couple (meant to be in their seventies, but Beulah Bondi was actually in her mid-40s!) who, due to the depression, have lost their house to the bank. So they turn to their five children for help… and end up being split apart for the first time in 50 years.

What unfolds over 90 minutes is a delicately told story about the older generation are made to step aside in order to “make way for tomorrow”. It is clear from the word go that of their children there is only one of them (Nell) who has the financial stability and the room to take them in… but she does not. For one thing her husband (that none of the family seem to like) downright refuses to let it happen, but you also feel that she would not want her life disrupted. So Lucy and Barkley are forced to separate, each living with a different child.

The mother goes to stay with the eldest son in New York and has to share the room with her teenage granddaughter. The father stays with one of the daughters who clearly just wants to be rid of him. As you can guess tensions begin to build and leads to an inevitable tear-jerking conclusion; heightened by 5 hours the older couple spend together where they are finally treated with kindness and respect.

The thing is, as you watch this film you can understand pretty much everyone’s motivation. This is what makes Make Way For Tomorrow  such an involving film. You understand Nell’s husband not wanting to have to make room for his in-laws. You understand the wife wanting to get rid of her mother-in-law as it has undermined her authority as a parent and led to her daughter get into trouble. Everyone in this film is just a believable human.

Without going into the specifics too much (because I do hate spoilers) it is the final half an hour that makes the film. One of the pinnacles really is when the children realise not only are they rotten and ungrateful, but also find out that their father is aware of their faults.

The ending of the film harkens back to a conversation that Louise has with her granddaughter Rhoda. Rhoda tells her grandmother to face the fact that her grandfather is too old now (being in his seventies) to get a new job and be able to stage a reunion. Louise in turn, hearbreakingly, asks Rhoda to let it go and let her keep pretending that it will all work out well. It’s a crushing moment and everything that follows this in the film is tinted by this sentiment.

Being part of the millennial generation means that I have had to rely on my mum for more than the children in this film will have. We see these children in their 30s-40s and it is pretty clear that they left as soon as they were able. Maybe this is why their actions of being so dismissive of helping their parents out really angered me. It’s not that I didn’t understand them, but sometimes you need to do the right thing because it’s the right thing.

Acclaimed Albums – A Night At The Opera by Queen

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 116/250Title: A Night At The Opera
Artist: Queen
Year: 1975
Position: #123

I have a very strange relationship with Queen. As a blanket rule I dislike them and, at times, I have found it upsetting when they end up being played. There are reasons behind why I react so negatively towards Queen… and I don’t wish to really go into why and what this music represents to me.  Needless to say this reaction can be severe to the point that I even had this music specifically banned at my wedding.

I think anyone reading this can imagine, therefore, that if I have this reaction to Queen it would be difficult for me to listen to a whole album. You’d be right. It was very difficult, but how could I ever say I have listened to the most acclaimed albums of all time without actually listening to A Night At The Opera? Exactly.

So I wasn’t going into this album with the best of mindsets. I was actually shocked when I found myself enjoying one of the songs – probably because it doesn’t sound like a Queen song. That’s right, ”39′ might be the only Queen song that I like other than ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’.

The rest of the album was… not my thing. I have never really liked ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and I think I am the only person in the world who feels that way. As for the rest of the tracks… what the hell was ‘I’m In Love With My Car’? Even more importantly, what the bloody hell was ‘Seaside Rendezvous’?

Now that I have actually listened to a Queen album, weird as it is to say, I have lost some of the anger I associated with them. Since so many people love this band I had this anger that I was being repelled from something amazing because of other things. Now I’ve listened to what is meant to be their best album… I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

It’s hard to describe how liberating that feels.

Graphic Content – Alix

List Item:  Read half of the 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die
21/501Title: Alix
Creator: Jacques Martin
Year: 1948-onwards
Country: France/Belgium

After splitting my Don Quixote time between the world of physical books and audiobooks I figured that it was high time that I returned to the world of graphic fiction. It is somewhat gratifying to cross off items from this list in a few days of reading (in comparison to the length of time required for Moby Dick and War and Peace).

So the first thing we (myself and hub) have chosen to read for the next comic run is the Alix series. If you are a native English speaker it is highly likely that you have never heard of Alix. It belongs to the same stylistic family as The Smurfs, Asterix and Tintin (known as ligne clare), but it never received the same traction. In fact, most of the Alix collections have not received an English translation.

Having read a bunch of these collections it is really quite simple to pinpoint the thing that prevented Alix from crossing over into the English world: humour, or lack thereof. Now, I am not saying that every piece of graphic fiction requires laughs in order to be successful in the English world (I mean look at Road to Perdition and The Sandman) but when you have a goody-two shoes protagonist there has to be some light humour.

Actually, now that I think about it, the problem with Alix is Alix. He is a former slave who instead of returning home to Gaul and picking up his life where it was cruelly snatched away by the Romans actually starts to work for Caesar as some strange adventurer for hire. I understand the idea of him being thankful for having his life saved… but let’s not forget he was a slave for the first however many years of his life.

Also, what is with for all the fake deaths? I sweat that every 4-5 pages there was a fake out of Alix dying. The most stupid of these that I saw was in the second collection Alix and the Golden Sphinx where he fell off a cliff into a convenient pool of water. There are literally no other pools of water in this area. It just feels cheap, like how many children’s films do that death fake out at the end… just imagine this happening multiple times in the film. I actually found it hard to not side with the villains sometimes.

One thing that this comic has going for it is historical accuracy. I actually quite enjoy having a comic like this where there are real people from history interacting with each other. Leaders like Pompey, Caesar and Vercingetorix all make appearances very early on in the series with Spartacus and some historical families featuring in later editions.

I think this is where 70 years difference between initial publishing and reading it. My expectation is probably drastically different seeing how I am more used to something that is darker (like V for Vendetta) or laugh out loud funny (Nodame Cantabile), but to me this is a series that I will definitely not be completing.

Let’s Get Literal – Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 32/100Title: Don Quixote
Author: Miguel de Cervantes
Year: 1605-1615
Country: Spain

It took me a month to finish both parts of Don Quixote. Seeing how I am now in the midst of weight loss (21 pounds down so far) I decided part way through to tackle this nearly 1000 page novel through the means of my first audiobook. That way I could go on long walks and still power through the crazy world of Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza.

For the uninitiated the plot of Don Quixote is remarkably simple. A well to do Castillian man loses his sanity after reading too many books on the history of chivalry and decides to become a knight errant by the name of Don Quixote (it would be like someone believing they are a superhero after consuming too many comic books). In this state he mortgages his estate and goes on a series of adventures with local farmer Sancho Panza acting as his squire (who, for whatever reason) believes that this will earn him the governorship of an island.

Many literary historians label Don Quixote as one of the earliest example of the modern novel. The fact that it engages in a glut of meta-fiction in the second part is somewhat amazing considering that this is well over 400 years old. By glut I mean there are actual chapters in the early sections of part two where Don Quixote and Sancho Panza discuss the in world novel of Don Quixote (some of this, rather interestingly, is related to consistencies in the first part that was published a decade earlier).

As much as this is a seed from which modern novels have grown from it still does not feel quite there yet. In essence, Don Quixote is more a collection of short stories (or adventures as Cervantes called it) that are connected by a framing narrative and the same characters.

There is a general decline in the fantastical nature of these adventures as the novel progresses too. In the beginning Don Quixote attacks windmills when he sees them as giants and envisages all inns as castles, but by the end of it he is being tricked by those who know of him and seek a quick laugh.

In a similar way, the novel also becomes less and less funny and, at the same time, becomes more and more self aware. It’s a weird balancing act that Cervantes chose to walk. I just feel that some editing could have made this book so much editor as the writer, much like his characters, has the tendency to ramble on a bit.

It’s actually quite hard to talk specifics about the ‘plot’ of Don Quixote because of its slightly disjointed nature. One thing I can say, however, is that a lot of the characters are jerks. I know that Don Quixote is mentally ill, but he is an absolute arse towards Sancho. I mean I understand that in his knight errant persona he is devoted to the (fictional) Dulcinea… but on very little evidence at all he just will not stop hassling Sancho to whip himself 3,300 times in order to reverse her enchantment (long story). Sancho does not want to whip himself, so Don Quixote’s first instinct is to threaten Sancho until he does it.

Sancho is no angel himself though. He is clearly the funny character, and made me chuckle on a number of occasions, but it is sometimes easy to read him as someone just taking advantage of Don Quixote to make a few hundred escudos out of him.

Obviously the biggest jerks are the Duke and Duchess from the second third of the second part. I’ll leave that there… but they are just the worst.

As a history lesson and as a lesson in which animals possess foresight and chastity (ants and elephants respectively) this has been an enlightening read. I would really recommend this as an audiobook as there are times where you can go pages without a paragraph break. Still, an interesting insight into literary history.

Good Eatin’: Eurovision 2016 (and afterwards)

It’s that time of year again (well it was) where Europe gets together and gets to enjoy each others entries in the Eurovision Song Contest. Obviously it is long over when this post goes up (and I will have probably played Austria’s entry to death by then, despite voting for Croatia), but it’s always nice to revisit one of your favourite days of the year.

List Item: Try half of the combined 1001 food booksFood item: Cabrales

In order to prepare for Eurovision we made an obligatory trip to Borough Market and wouldn’t you know there are still many more things yet to cross off from there. This Spanish blue cheese is a case in point.

Now look at this slice of Cabrales. It has got to be the bluest blue cheese that I have ever laid eyes on. The texture was crumbly, something that I have never seen in a blue cheese before (my guess is that the concentration of mould is so great in this cheese that it kinda interferes with the structural integrity at some level). Tastewise it was still fairly creamy, but was just so intense at times that I would liken it to a drier Cashel Blue that was on crack. This was a very good cheese.

IMG_3327Food item: Merguez

We managed to get a dried merguez sausage instead of the fresher type that you would fry or grill. It’s very different to have yourself a lamb sausage if you are only used to pork (or sometimes chicken). You also have the spice element with the chilli, pepper and (I think) cumin. These are definitely something I need to pick up from a street vendor should I ever find myself in Tunisia.

Food item: Tomme De Savoie

A bit more globetrotting here with this cheese from the French part of Savoy. So apparently a tomme is a type of cheese made from left over skim cheese that is left over, which makes it lower in fat. I wish I had known this when eating this cheese so I would not have felt so frickin’ guilty about having that second big slice.

It’s a very milky cheese with a mild aftertaste. Just don’t eat the rind as that is not too pleasant. As a form of comparison it’s like a stronger and less buttery tilsiter (but that’s a bit of a stretch).

The Next DayIMG_3329Food item: Gower Salt Marsh Lamb

I actually ordered these lamb shoulder steaks in the final week before returning to work (three weeks have passed since then). They are only available at the official Gower Salt Marsh Lamb website and the people who work there are really lovely! When I was ordering my steaks I told the guy on the end of the phone about the book and he had not heard that that they were in it! Imagine that.

As lamb goes, yes, this is on the more expensive side, but this is well worth the difference as long as you buy in bulk. There is a richer taste to this when compared to regular lamb that I can only place as ‘mineraly’. I guess that will be because of the diet of the lambs. It might also explain why it tasted so good with marsh samphire (the taste of which I now really like).

Because I had no other post to put this in
Food item: Faggots

I… umm… feel slightly uncomfortable having this as a tag for this post. Never tell people that you are having faggots for dinner as it either sounds like you are being ultra offensive or about to have some sort of sex party.

In layman’s terms these are pork offal meatballs and are very much a British dish (the name coming from the Latin for ‘bundle’. I guess though this is how language evolves – so maybe we just need to learn to call these ‘savoury ducks’. Or not. That just sounds weird.

Progress: 895/933

Acclaimed Albums – In Rainbows by Radiohead

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 115/250Title: In Rainbows
Artist: Radiohead
Year: 2007
Position: #89

As of writing this Radiohead’s ninth album A Moon Shaped Pool has recently come out and I cannot stop listening to it. They have always been one of those bands that I meant to listen to more often and now they seem to have released the perfect gateway album for me. As such I have started listening to some of their other albums, and here we are.

Instead of continuing to go chronologically through their albums I decided to leapfrog over Kid A and go straight for In Rainbows instead as I actually know this album. In fact I got In Rainbows on the day it came out because they were doing the whole ‘pay what you want’ thing. Seeing how I just started university that week (and was nervous about the whole limited money thing) I paid £1.50 for it. I mean I could have gotten it for free, but that just didn’t feel cricket.

The problem with 17 year old university me and the release of In Rainbows was that I was at quite the right point in my musical development to properly appreciate it. I did, however, really fall for ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’ and that is still my favourite song on the album.

Now that I have listened to a lot more of their music I understand more how unusual In Rainbows is when compared to the rest of their back catalogue. For one thing this is the album where it sounds like they are having the most fun. Similarly, In Rainbows feels a lot like an album that was made out of a jam session in the studio. I know that was very much not the case (some songs had been years in the making) but they somehow feel effortless and without pretence on this album.

It is nine years later (oh dear god) since I first got this album and I think that I am finally in a place musically where I can really appreciate it. No longer do I just dip in for ‘Weird Fishes’ and then move on out.  Now I make sure that I stick around for ‘House of Cards’ (I also love ’15 Step’, but that’s at the beginning of the album so no need to stick around for that one).

Seeing how I have already started to make a return to ‘Let Down’ from OK Computer as I finish this write up my prediction is that I will be crossing off Kid A very very soon.

XL Popcorn – Out Of The Past

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 573/1007
Title: Out Of The Past
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Year: 1947
Country: USA

There are many ways that you can tell you are watching a film noir e.g. cinematography and certain character types. Out Of The Past is a master class in what is possibly one of the most defining features: the convoluted and overly complex plot (The Big Sleep is another example of this). It gets to the point that, as you watch the final half hour, there are so many bluffs, double bluffs, double crosses and fishing-related deaths (okay one of those, but that’s a lot) that it becomes rather difficult to know what the hell is going on.

In a nutshell the film is about a former private investigator who has tried to escape his former life (and now lives as a petrol station owner) and is drawn back into the life by his old shady employer. That’s the least spoilerish (and clearest) way to describe the film and yet it misses out the femme fatale (and reason for the private investigator’s troubles).

I know that Rita Heyworth’s Gilda or Gene Tierney’s Laura are seen as the architypal femme fatales, but Jane Greer really takes the cake here. Right from the word go we, as the audience, don’t exactly trust her when she denies stealing the money from mob boss Whit (Kirk Douglas) and yet she still shot him 4 times. All this and yet the investigator (Robert Mitchum) strikes up a romance with her… what is it with men.

To be perfectly honest, I know that this is a film I need to see again to completely get all the minutiae of the plot (and even then I am not entirely sure I will get it all). Serious thanks to the world of Wikipedia for giving me a summary that I was able to get once I finished the movie.

One thing about this film for sure is that Robert Mitchum made for a perfect hardboiled detective (thank you Gintama for ruining that phrase for me) and Jane Greer just flies as the manipulative femme fatale.